HL Deb 02 December 1908 vol 197 cc1418-25

, who had the following Question on the Paper—namely: "To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies what Government measures are likely to be submitted to this House during the remaining days of the session; and whether he is able to state approximately the amount of time which His Majesty's Government propose to allot to each of those measures"—said: My Lords, I do not think the noble Earl to whom I am going to address this Question will complain of me on the ground that it is in any way irrelevant or even premature. Indeed, many of my noble friends on this side of the House have, I know, for some time past, been extremely anxious that information should be elicited from His Majesty's Government as to the probable course of events during the remainder of the session, but I certainly felt that, so long as the Licensing Bill was still in suspense, it was not fair to invite His Majesty's Government to make any statement of the kind to the House. Now, however, we are able to count the measures which still remain undisposed of, and, also, to count the days which will be available for dealing with them on the assumption which, I notice, is freely made out-of-doors, that the appropriate date for prorogation will fall before the arrival of Christmas.

I see that, of the Bills mentioned in the King's Speech, the following have still to come before your Lordships' House. In the first place, there is the Education Bill, which, of course, is not the Bill which came before Parliament earlier in the session, but an entirely new measure of which we are all aware. Then there is the Bill dealing with the hours of labour in coal mines. There is a Bill dealing with the Housing of the Working Classes and Town Planning. That, I may mention, is a Bill covering thirty-three pages besides six schedules—a Bill in which many of your Lordships take a great interest. There is the Port of London Bill—another very lengthy Bill, covering fifty-three pages and dealing with an expenditure of no less than twenty-three millions of money. Besides these, there is a Bill dealing with the Irish land question, and there are the two Scottish Bills which were revived this year— the Bills which your Lordships dealt with during the last session of Parliament. And to these there have been added several other Bills, one dealing with Scottish Education, one with the Prevention of Crime, and a Bill dealing with the use of White Phosphorous, in which, I am told, much interest is taken. The only Government measure which is now down on your Lordships' Paper is the Scottish Education Bill, which, I understand, will come on. on Monday next. According to my calculations, and on the assumption which I made just now, there will be thirteen working days left for this House between Monday next and Christmas Eve, and what I wish to elicit from His Majesty's Government is some information as to the manner in which those few days are to be turned to account.

I will venture to make one or two observations. In the first place with regard to the Education Bill. This is a Bill which, I will take it upon myself to say, is regarded in this House with the most intense interest. The subject is one with which your Lordships have had a great deal to do, and this particular Bill, I might almost say, had its origin in this House, because I doubt extremely whether we should ever have heard of it had it not been for the initiative of the most rev. Primate, whose efforts to bring about an amicable settlement of this difficult question have elicited the sincere admiration even of those who do not entirely agree with him. I am told that the earliest date on which the Education Bill can come up to your Lordships' House is Monday, the 14th of this month. The usual sources of information acquaint us that upon that evening the Secretary of State for India intends to make a statement of the very utmost importance to your Lordships, but, assuming that the Secretary of State's statement does not prevent our commencing operations with the Education Bill, I do not think it is too much to assume—indeed, I do not know whether I have any right to make such an assumption—that the Education Bill, if it is to be at all discussed, would take the whole of that week. It comes to us recommended as an amicable settlement of the education question, and for that reason we shall all of us, no doubt, approach it with a favourable predisposition. But we shall most certainly expect to have time to consider it fully and to discuss it, not only in the debate on Second Reading, but on the Committee stage. Therefore, I think I am not making an extravagant assumption, when I assume that at least the whole of the week beginning 14th December will be required for the Education Bill.

How, then, shall we stand at the beginning of the following week—Monday, the 21st? We shall be within four days of Christmas Eve, and we shall still have to deal with the whole of the other Bills I have mentioned—the Coal Mines Bill, the Housing of the Working Classes Bill, the Port of London Bill; I do not refer to the Irish Land Bill because, I take it, it is not seriously intended that it should be persevered with at present. It is, I think, pretty obvious that it will be a physical impossibility for your Lordships' House, even if we proceed with the extraordinary expedition which sometimes characterises our debates at the end of the session, to undertake the consideration of all these important measures, and I want to ask the noble Earl whether he can tell us how His Majesty's Government suggest we should proceed. They must obviously have had this matter under their consideration. They must have plans of some kind of their own. We have had in the past many protests and many promises in regard to this subject, but I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that at this moment the prospect is more hopeless than it has ever been towards the end of a session. We were asked to meet again in the autumn with the idea of giving more time to the discussion of public business. The only result, so far as I can see, is that still further measures have been added to those which were already before Parliament, and that the congestion of business, instead of being less, is greater than it was before.

I can assure the noble Earl opposite that I raise this question without any desire to make party capital out of it. The difficulty is one which confronts noble Lords opposite at this moment, but it is a difficulty which has confronted, and must confront again whatever Government is in power. It arises from several causes. One of these, if I may say so without disrespect, is the voracious appetite for legislation which prevails at the time in which we live—an appetite which the Government of the day must endeavour to some extent to satisfy. Another cause is the extreme length and complexity of the Bills which are presented to Parliament. That, again, is perhaps, inevitable, because it seems to me to stand to reason that the more Bills you place upon the Statute-book the more complex and intricate become the Bills which succeed them, and which, in most cases, amend or modify them. And in the third place there is another obvious cause, which is the desire of Members of, Parliament in both Houses, to take more part than they used to do in the discussion of public business. I say, therefore, that both parties are interested in discovering some means of relieving this congestion, this intolerable pressure, which arises year after year, and, although this is not the occasion for making suggestions—it would not be our business to make them—I will take upon myself to say that I do not believe that it should be beyond the power of Parliament to discover some means of solving this difficulty. I observed the other day that a distinguished colleague of the noble Earl, the Irish Secretary, made an intimation to the effect that if any Bills were to be carried over this session he expected his Bill, the Irish Land Bill, to be carried over. I do not know whether that revealed a glimpse of the intentions of His Majesty's Government —I do not pursue that suggestion further—but I am deeply convinced that, if both Houses and both political parties set their minds to it, it should be possible to discover some reasonable means of relieving Parliament of the necessity of doing twice over, in two successive sessions, work which has been done in the previous session, and of, at any rate, relieving this House from what I think I have before described as the scandalous situation in which we too often find ourselves placed in the expiring days of the session.


My Lords, I am afraid I am not able to give a very full reply to the Question asked by the noble Marquess for reasons which I will explain in a moment. I desire to say at once that, in my judgment, nothing could have been fairer than the tone or temper in which the noble Marquess has approached the subject, which is itself one, as we all know, of extreme difficulty. In regard to the work at the moment it is the case, as the noble Marquess has said, that the Scottish Bill is the only Government Bill of any importance which is likely to be before the House in the immediate future. The Second Reading has been put down for Monday next. Therefore, this week and next are not fully occupied. The noble Marquess has supplied a reason for that in alluding to what I cannot help thinking he somewhat facetiously called the state of suspense in which the Licensing Bill was supposed to be. These are the days in which you would naturally have been giving consideration to that Bill in Committee had it passed a Second Reading. Unfortunately, as I have said, I am not able to give a full account because I cannot anticipate the statement which my right hon. friend the Prime Minister will make in another place, and which, I understand, he may not be able to make this week. But I can say that, in addition to the Scottish Bill, I should hope that the Port of London Bill will reach its last stage in another place some time in the middle of next week, and it will then, of course, be available for our discussion. If the Education Bill finds a successful passage through another place it would be read there a third time on Saturday, the 12th, and a sitting would be held here to read it a first time upon that afternoon. That would enable the Second Reading to be taken on Tuesday, the 15th. I do not quarrel with the noble Marquess for saying that at any rate the greater part of that week, even if we were to sit, as I think the House might be disposed to do, both on Friday and on Saturday, if necessary, would have to be given to the discussion of the Education Bill. At the same time I think it is reasonable to point out that the subject is so exceedingly familiar to the House from the various occasions on which it has been discussed here, that discussion upon it ought to pass more rapidly than would naturally be the case with a Bill of that length and importance. At any rate the whole terminology is known to everybody—even to the point, I should imagine, of disgust—and discussion may therefore be fairly supposed to be more concentrated than would otherwise be the ca8e. I am not in a position to-day to mention any more measures. It is perfectly true, as the noble Marquess points out, that all the measures mentioned in the King's Speech cannot possibly become law during the present session. It is, of course, our hope and desire that the prorogation should take place before Christmas, and supposing we sat on Friday and Saturday, it would leave nine working days from Monday, the 14th. I can at this moment only leave it to noble Lords to imagine how much more work besides the Education Bill can be included in those nine days.


My Lords, these discussions upon the time which is available for business have long ago lost the attraction of novelty for me, as I presume they have for everybody else. I have sat in this House now for ten years, and I have a distinct recollection of hearing similar speeches made from both sides once if not twice in the course of the year. The only difference between the discussion on this occasion and similar discussions in previous years is that what I would venture to call the Parliamentary harlequinade is to take place at a more appropriate season than usual. There is only one really effective means of dealing with a situation of this kind. I do, as a matter of fact, remember one occasion on which it was effectively dealt with, when noble Lords on the other side of the House succeeded, much to their credit, in talking out the Finance Bill. But there is a heroic method by which the difficulty can be confronted if necessary. I would remind the House of a Resolution unanimously passed by your Lordships' House on 6th April, 1905. It ran— That this House, recognising its duties as a deliberative Assembly, protests against the practice of introducing Bills into it under conditions which afford insufficient time for their consideration, and declares its intention to refuse to consider any Bill unless sufficient opportunity be afforded for due deliberation thereon. This appears to me to be an admirable occasion on which to put this Resolution into force. There is one important measure in the Government programme in which I take a personal interest. It is the Mines (Eight Hours) Bill. The noble Earl has preserved a judicious silence about the fate of that measure, and I would be much obliged if, before we separate, some light could be thrown on what is likely to happen to it. I do not wish to add my voice to the general grumble on this occasion, but I would venture to point out that there is no use in passing blood-and-thunder Resolutions of this kind unless you are prepared to act up to them. At the present moment I am afraid that if we were to act up to this Resolution our attitude would be liable to misrepresentation. We should be accused of being actuated not so much by want of time as by want of sympathy with the measures brought up. But if we on this side do ever sit upon the opposite side of the House again, I hope we shall act in a different way, and that if our own party send up Bills of great importance in the last days of the session, allowing practically not much more than a few minutes apiece for consideration, we shall decline to consider them. I submit that it is not much use making these protests unless we are in earnest, and the best way of showing that we are in earnest is to pursue when we are in office the policy I have indicated.


My Lords, one Bill has entirely escaped notice. I refer to the measure to consolidate the Agricultural Holdings Acts of Scotland, which has been down for some time on the Paper in the name of the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture. I think the fate of that Bill can be decided pretty easily one way or the other. I understand it has not been through the other House of Parliament, and it is not entirely a Consolidating Bill, there being new matter in it. In these circumstances, I suggest that either the Bill should have been brought on for consideration in this House before now, or we should be told that it is not to be carried through this session.


I will bring the matter to the notice of my noble friend, who, I am sorry to say, is not in his place to-day.


What is the position of the Mines (Eight Hours) Bill?


I am afraid I am not in a position to inform the noble Lord. I should be very glad to, if I could.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.